I John 5:1-8
“We Shall Overcome”
May 17, 2009 - Sixth Sunday of Easter
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. The smoke, in this case, is the call to love each other. Throughout our look into I John in these weeks after Easter, we’ve heard John giving his readers that direction, over and over. He mentions it again in verse 2 here saying, “This is how we know we love the children of God.” It was there in John’s Gospel as well this morning, as we heard Jesus say in John 15:17, “This is my command: Love each other.”
Connect the dots. If John found it necessary to constantly repeat the command for Christians to love each other, then that was exactly the problem his church faced. In the church at Ephesus, in apostolic smoke signals spelling out L-O-V-E, we see the fires of discord, neglect and conflict burning.
Reading between the lines, we discover the Ephesian church split between rich and poor, between those well off and those not. They didn’t trust each other. They didn’t help each other. They didn’t love each other. Turn over to Jesus’ message to the church at Ephesus in Revelation 2:4 and read, “I have this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first.”
In other words, as we sit listening to the apostle call us to better relationships with our sisters and brothers in Christ, there’s a bit of comfort in knowing that one of the first Christian churches had at least as much trouble getting along with each as we sometimes do. But it’s somewhat chilly comfort.
As we occasionally deal with distrust, dislike and feelings of hurt or neglect among ourselves, it may not seem all that helpful to learn the same thing was true in the first century Church. It may, in fact, seem as if this whole Christian business is hopeless. When it comes down to the key thing Jesus asked of us, to live in love with one another, we in the Christian Church have made a mess of things for twenty centuries.
That’s why, at the end of his letter, John turned his attention back to his other major theme, to the centrality of belief in Jesus Christ as God’s Son and our Savior. Verse 1 begins there, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Messiah is born of God…” It’s only then, on the basis of belief in Jesus and God’s love to us in Him, that he turns in verse 2 to talk about loving the children of God. and carrying out His commands. As we heard Jesus says twice in the Gospel, the command is to love each other.
John worried that his readers in Ephesus might also think it was hopeless. He didn’t want all his talk of love to get them down, but to raise them up. So he called them back to belief in Jesus and love of God, and then declared at the end of verse 3, “And his commands are not burdensome.”
Jesus said much the same thing in Matthew 11:30, “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Our Lord’s central command to love each other is not meant to give us hearts heavy with guilt about the failures in our relationships. Jesus and John mean to lighten our loads, to lift our hearts, to give us hope.
The message today from John the apostle is not despair. It’s hope. And it’s not just a hope that one day off in the future God will heal our strained fellowships and repair our broken friendships. John uses the present tense to begin verse 4, “for everyone who is born of God overcomes [right now, in the present] the world.” And a past tense to finish it, “This is the victory that has overcome [it’s already happened] the world, even our faith.” As impossible as it might feel, our faith in Christ is not just victory to come, but a victory of love here and now.
Our Lord’s love victory happens all the time. Jesus is winning the victory in our midst. One or more of you will put your arm around someone who needs encouragement today. Many of you showed up yesterday to work hard at our yard sale in a cause for kids who are not your own. Some of you will take home a Lane Pregnancy Support Center bottle and start saving for moms and babies you don’t even know. As Paul says, “Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!”
The love of Jesus is winning, even when we don’t feel it or find it hard to see. Our Lord lives up to His promise to give us what we ask for in His name. And when we ask for and seek to live in His love, He shows up. He makes it happen. He wins the victory in us.
So what about all the rest of it? What about the hurts we’ve received and the hurts we’ve dealt out to each other? What about your feelings of loneliness even as you sit among people who are sisters and brothers in Christ? What about our quarrels and grumblings and conflicts? Sure there are some points on the church scoreboard for love, but what about the times hatred and anger have run over us and scored an ugly touchdown in the end zone of our hearts? What about that?
Winning back some yardage for the love of Jesus is why we come here each Sunday. It’s why we worship together. Verse 5 says, “Who is it that overcomes the world?” Who will win out over a world of pain and misery caused by our own sins against each other? “Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.” We are here to win more of the victory of God’s love by reminding each other to believe in Jesus. It’s as simple as that.
Remember what we heard last week, “We love because he first loved us.” The only way, the only way for love to win out in our hearts and minds is if we focus first on God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. That’s why John comes back at the end of his letter to Jesus and what He has done and continues to do for us. So verse 6 tells us, “This is the one who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ.”
Go back to John’s Gospel, chapter 19, verse 34, and you find that water and blood flowed from Jesus’ side when a soldier pierced Him with a spear as He hung on the Cross. The water and the blood remind us how Jesus died for us, laying down His life, as we heard Him say this morning, for our sake. We remember that He laid His life down for us, and are moved to lay our lives down for each other.
Yet the water and blood to which John refers are a bigger picture even than just Jesus’ death on the Cross. The water goes all the way back to Jesus’ baptism. That’s the point of the next sentence, “He did not come by water only, but by water and blood.” Jesus did not just begin His mission with the dramatic symbol of His baptism. He completed it by going all the way to the end, to His goal of shedding His blood so that you and I can be saved. The water and the blood are the two bookends of all that Jesus’ did. What was begun in the waters of baptism was finished and made complete by the blood of the Cross.
We gather in worship to remember the water and the blood and everything that Jesus did in between, how He taught hope to the hopeless, how He healed the sick, how He fed the hungry, how He loved everyone. We assemble each week to hear testimony. John says, “it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is truth.” This is not just the Holy Spirit inside each of us, speaking in a quiet little voice. This is the testimony of the Spirit who guided the authors of this Book. We believe the Holy Spirit inspired the Bible so you and I can hear His testimony about Jesus Christ, about His ministry from baptism to the Cross.
Yet it’s not just the Spirit’s testimony we receive in worship. Verse 7 says, “For there are three that testify,” and verse 8 continues, “the Spirit, the water and the blood: and the three are in agreement.” The water and the blood that framed Jesus’ life continue to testify about Him because they also frame our lives as Christians.
We begin our Christian lives with the sacrament of Baptism, and we continue to live and grow in Christ as we come to His Table and partake together in the Holy Communion of His Body and Blood. Water and the blood are the two sacraments of Christian worship, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. And they continue to testify to us about the love of Jesus, agreeing with the Spirit’s witness in Holy Scripture.
That means worship—hearing the Spirit speak in God’s Word and celebrating the sacraments together—is the means God has given us to experience the victory promised in verses 4 and 5. We overcome the world by getting together and receiving Word and Sacrament and letting them grow in us the love of God. Worship is Christian training.
A recent article in Newsweek suggests that, just as you can build up your muscles or your mind through proper training, you may also increase your capacity for compassion and love by training. A study found that people who felt trust and security about their own lives were much more likely to exhibit compassion toward others. “We love because he first loved us.” We reinforce our trust and security in Jesus by listening to the Bible read and taught and by receiving the sacramental gifts. And so we increase our ability to live out Christian faith in love. We offer love to others out of our own feelings of trust in Jesus.
One experiment described in Newsweek involved measuring the brain responses of Buddhist monks who regularly meditated on a desire for all living beings to be free from suffering. It was found that such meditation produced a difference in their brain patterns that appeared even when not meditating, whenever they saw something like a picture of an injured child. One researcher said, “It seems that mental training that cultivates compassion produces lasting changes…”
We believe God intends to create even greater and longer lasting changes in us through our participation in and meditation on the blessings of Jesus Christ as we hear the Word and receive the Sacraments. As you and I contemplate the richness and depth of what God has done for us in Jesus, we are being transformed into people with more and more capacity for compassion and love toward each other and everyone around us.
That’s why we as a church are not merely a social help organization. That’s why we don’t simply cancel our scheduled worship times and head out into the community to do acts of service and love. We certainly do those things—we love struggling mothers and unborn babies; we show compassion to the hungry and the homeless; we befriend the lonely and abused. And we love and care for one another. But it all starts here, in the witness of Spirit, water and blood, the testimony of Word and Sacrament. Together that we receive that which makes us able to love others, the message and nourishment of God’s love for us.
If you are struggling with hard feelings toward another person; if you would like to grow a greater sense of compassion for people in need; if you would like to grow more into being a person of love, this is the place to be. Remember the new beginning God gave you in your baptism, and you are more able to forgive and allow a new beginning in a difficult relationship. Hear that Jesus the Good Shepherd laid down His life for you, and you become a little more able to lay your own life down for someone else. Stand and raise to your lips the cup of the New Covenant in Christ’s blood meditating on just how much He loved you, and more love pumps through your own heart.
Out of our worship together comes the victory. Out of Word and Sacrament flows the victory that overcomes all the pain and hatred and sorrow of the world. From the place where Jesus is celebrated as the Son of God is birthed a baby that might otherwise not have been born, comes forgiveness that might otherwise have remained hatred, comes help and healing and hope that could have remained mere indifference. As we celebrate Jesus Christ, we are changed. As we become people of love and compassion in and through the grace of Jesus, the world is changed. Right here, today, among us, the world is overcome with the love of Jesus and is changed into the kingdom of God, the kingdom of love.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2009 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj